LUXOR: The Karnak Conundrum

I have a confession, reader, that has the potential to send shockwaves: I don’t care for Karnak. The Egyptologists amongst you are surely gagging, but the rest of you probably haven’t the foggiest notion what I’m talking about. I think you may have heard the name Karnak before — it is one of the most popular and important sites from ancient Egypt, after all, but I’ve found it’s more commonly known as the name of some superhero in some comic. I don’t know what that is. But Egypt isn’t as universally beloved as I assume it to be, so maybe this name means less than nothing to you. And that’s okay.

Karnak is a sprawling temple complex in Luxor, the largest in Egypt, and I’ve been told it is the largest religious complex in the world. I’ve also been told it’s the second largest, but this person never did mention what was the largest. So, somebody please find the answer and leave it in the comments below. There are pylons and temples and ruins and chapels and columns and it goes on for acres and acres. You could go for days and days and never see it all. Still, for some reason that I don’t fully understand, I don’t like Karnak. There’s just too much of it for my taste, the last time I went there were far too many touts, and I just find the place irksome. I don’t connect with it the way I do to Luxor Temple or even the small temple dedicated to Seti I that is rarely frequented on the West Bank. But I felt an obligation to go. I would have been remiss to miss it.

So after procrastinating for a good long time, gorging myself on gorgeous purple grapes on the breakfast buffet, and writing a couple letters that still haven’t been delivered — ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ — I made my way outside to the loitering taxi drivers who immediately hopped to attention when they saw me. They were desperate for business and it wasn’t hard to talk them down a bit. I don’t even like doing that since everybody is so poor, but it is the expected behavior. Egyptians don’t understand you if you don’t haggle a little bit, so I just do it to stay cool and hip with the drivers.

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It’s about two kilometers to Karnak, and I really wouldn’t mind the walk, but it was already getting late into the afternoon and I should have left much earlier, but like I said, this is not a place that I feel any kind of connection to. So, I didn’t mind that it was only a few hours until closing time. I grabbed my ticket from the tired vendor and hurried across the broken stone entry that is way too large and far too ugly. I don’t understand the design of some of these modern facilities. They’re often hideous. Karnak is a perfect example of hideous.

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I roamed through the Hypostyle Hall and marveled at the massive pillars as anybody does. They never fail to impress. And then I wandered listlessly through the ruins. I remembered that I had been fond of the Temple of Khonsu the last time I went here, so I headed out into a field of broken stonework and headed toward the temple. It was devoid of habitation, just like the last time, and I really enjoyed lingering in the pylon entrance for a spell, looking at the remaining paint on the vultures and thinking about the herd of goats that I had watched a couple years back.

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After my respite, I made my way into the temple itself and was, at first, annoyed that a guard was watching me. This is always annoying, but I’ve learned how to deal with these people. He motioned me to follow him, and soon he was unlocking doors and shining a light on beautiful painted reliefs that were not allowed for the general public to see as they were being studied by a foreign university. It was the off season, so their site was left vacant, locked up awaiting their autumnal return.

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Locks, like laws, mean nothing in Egypt, and the allure of baksheesh is intoxicating both for the guards and for the tourist. It’s become especially addicting for me. I have learned that I only saw half of what I could have seen because I didn’t understand this ridiculous but completely accepted system. Now, I carry tip money with me at all times and it has done nothing but help me out. You remember the angry guard at Abu Simbel, yes?IMG_3308IMG_3313IMG_3339

It was delightful to see the restoration and preservation work inside these off-limit environs. The colors were at times rich, the carvings clear, and it was grand to see a bit of Karnak looking like it might have done in the historic past. There were planks all over the ground where the stone floor was missing, and it was possible to wind my up onto the roof and survey the landscape around me and appreciate the scope of the temple complex for the first time.

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It’s absolutely monstrous. It was awe-inspiring actually, and for one of the first moments, I started to feel something at Karnak. Not much, mind you, reader, which irritates me to no end, but there was a spark of some Egyptological fervor in me.

The man took me around the rest of the complex, graciously accepted the money I proffered, and left me in blissful peace. He was one of the nicer guards, as the majority of them are, but there are always a few that want to hustle you a bit harder than others. This grizzled old man was kindly and I appreciated him.

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I was feeling extraordinarily dull, reader, which is a feeling I really don’t like to experience. As I frequently lecture, only boring people are bored. I am not a boring person, so I refuse to let myself stay in this condition any longer than I have to. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to accomplish at Karnak, so I decided just to wander at my leisure. I started with some highly damaged, but still standing chapels that were pitch black.

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I thought a lot about the darkness in those rooms. I thought about The Mummy, that wonderful, ridiculous film, and about the oversized bronze mirrors that were used to illuminate subterranean passages. And then I thought about the smoke stains from torches and braziers. And then I contemplated the little chinks taken out of the ceiling in tiny squares and considered the intense beams of light that fell into the room. The light was so bright in those spots that it felt almost like it had weight.

I wanted to take a picture of me grabbing the light, so I got my phone ready and then I put my hand into the light, and then something wonderful happened. When the sunlight hit my skin, it bounced, and hit the walls around me. I gasped at the delight of this. I could literally throw the light around the room in concentrated beams. Depending on how I used my hand, I could illuminate large patches of the hieroglyph-covered walls. Is this how the ancient priests used to see their ancient religious texts? I liked the theory. I need to study it some more. If there’s an authoritative text that is well-referenced, let me know. I would love to know if there is any credence to this new belief of mine. Wouldn’t it make sense, since ancient religions (and even modern ones) rely on mysteries, for the sacred rooms to be shrouded in darkness and only illuminated by the power of the sun, especially in ancient Egypt when their major god, Ra, was illustrated by the sun? I like this theory more the more I write.

After tossing the light every which way, I strolled out of the chapel and back into the rambling temple complex. Near a fallen obelisk and beside the sacred lake, there is a massive scarab statue.

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Legend says that if you circle the scarab seven times chanting a wish to come true, it will. There was a story about a fellahin who had begged for a wife, and once he completed this task, his dreams came true. I saw a tour group do this several years ago, and I thought they were absolutely ridiculous to wind their way around. But in 2016, I was different.

I shrugged my shoulders, decided to head to the scarab and wish my disease away.

“I don’t have multiple sclerosis, I don’t have multiple sclerosis, I don’t have multiple sclerosis…” I chanted as I whirled around the giant stone beetle.

Coming to the end, a well-uniformed security guard approached me and told me that I was sure to get a wife now. I smiled and chuckled to myself and replied, “Inshallah.” This pleased him inordinately, and so I was led on a long walk with him into more to those off-limit sites for a bit of baksheesh. Everybody’s charmingly corrupt in Egypt. He led me into a chamber with something to do with Alexander and went to find a man who was going to give me great good luck. I shrugged again, any luck was better than no luck, after all.

The baksheesh that I offered was money well spent because I was taken into a great number of beautifully painted chambers that were behind locked doors. Without being there yourself, you can’t know the treat of this. You can’t grasp the delights of hidden spaces and the intoxication of being in an off limits locale. So, I’ll just share these pictures with you and perhaps you’ll glimpse an inkling of the thrill I had.

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In the last space, the grizzled old man led me to a few blackened hieroglyphs on the chapel wall. They had evidently been darkened by age and the oil from the touches of thousands of tourists in the past. They weren’t particularly enigmatic symbols, so I am unsure why they were chosen for this little ritual. I could understand why the ankh had been chosen, as this is the ancient Egyptian symbol for life. The rest, though, I couldn’t tell you. I was made to touch this symbol, which I was reluctant to do as I don’t believe in actively damaging archaeological sites, but in the moment it was appropriate. With my other hand, I was made to touch the symbol that represents lips and makes the sound ‘r.’

The old man smiled at me, put his hand on the crown of my head, bowed it down, gestured for me to close my eyes, and then he hummed a little melody. It was hardly lovely, and there were only a few words that he uttered ever so often. It was absolutely peculiar, like the moment when a group of enlightened Buddhists came to Des Moines with pearls and blessed me. That was a strange day. And it was strange in that little chapel, too. It didn’t feel particularly sacred, I wasn’t overwhelmed by spirituality or thrust into the past. Nothing so dramatic happened. Instead I simply felt charmed. What a weird moment in my life, what a fabulous story to share when I returned back to the secular West.

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After I’d been given the grand tour of every site in Karnak temple that might potentially be lucky, I tipped the guard and the guide and went off on my merry way. There were things to do and places to see, but I simply wasn’t in the mood. I could have gone to the Open Air Museum, but I’ve put that off each time I visit. I have no doubt that I’ll return to Karnak another dozen times at the very least before my untimely death, so I wasn’t concerned about missing out on much. (And don’t worry about that previous statement, my untimely death is literally anytime I happen to die. It would be untimely if I achieve my goal of 111. What’s the point of dying anyway? Sounds awfully boring to be dead and there is always something interesting to do here.)

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I meandered again through the massive columns in the Hypostyle Hall, and though I find Karnak to be a soulless behemoth, it’s hard not to be gobsmacked by this spot. The columns are like the trunks of redwoods, so thick and so long…lol…and they’re utterly captivating. You have to admire those ancient laborers and architects who turned limestone into graceful structures, who spent hours and hours chiseling away the most beautiful texts in the most beautiful script ever conceived by humankind. And to think of each column festooned in riots of colors — well, it must have been the most wonderful thing in the world.

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With my reveries complete, it was finally time to head back to my bath at the Winter Palace and get ready for dinner.

I had decided that I had to cheat on Debbie and the Lantern and sweet Mina. If hurt me because I have grown to consider them family, but the explorer must explore, you know, and I returned to Snob’s.

The name alone is enough to get me in the door. I have heard nothing but good things about this establishment; and all the accolades are well deserved, but it’s not The Lantern. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Still, you should know the basics; and if you’re ever lucky enough to be in my beloved Luxor, you have to stop by. Snob’s is run by the former king of Saudi Arabia’s chef and the waiters are all dripping with elegant manners. I always am reminded of Maxim’s in Paris. It’s wonderfully formal, and even though I have never seen a patron but myself there, the staff is always cordial and genteel.

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After you’ve been seated, you’re presented with a cool cloth to wipe away the desert sand and dust, and that little touch screams of elegance. I made my selections and soon I could smell marvelous fragrances emanating from the kitchens. The lentil soup was lovely, but it was not the masterpiece the Debbie cooked up across the way. The tomato salad was very good, if hardly exceptional. And the same could be said for the bubble and squeak that I had for my main.  It was all good and absurdly cheap. But the entire experience was melancholy. There’s nobody in Egypt who is attending these restaurants which makes it little wonder that they’re all closing their doors and shuttering their windows. Why bother when there’s no hope of attracting business? I’m honestly surprised that Snob’s is still open. There wasn’t a soul there in 2014, and there wasn’t one that night. How do they stay in business, what income source do they rely on? Perhaps the owner has enough money to not be concerned, or maybe they cater to hotels, or maybe the main diners come at a different time from me. I still enjoyed my meal, but I missed the comfort of The Lantern and the excellent hospitality of Debbie and Mina.

Leaving the restaurant, I stopped at Arkwright’s, a little shop that is famous amongst the British expatriates and guests. It’s filled with British imports and presented at incredibly reasonable prices. You could get cereals and drinks and all sorts of goodies, and I really enjoyed wandering around. I ate an absurd number of Oreos. I don’t rightly know why. I don’t particularly care for Oreos, but when I was in Luxor, I wanted nothing more than Oreos. I started going back at least once a day. Once I went back twice. I just kept gorging on Oreos. I walked so much that I didn’t care about the additional calories. I justified my Oreo obsession, but I had one a minute ago, and I didn’t like it at all. I wonder if British Oreos are made differently than the ones we get here in America? I’m done with my Oreo tangent.

IMG_3562.JPGBack at the Winter Palace, I treated myself to a walk through the garden and to a delicious gin martini and luxuriated at the bar. I was, as always, the only guest. I wish more people would come to Luxor as tourists and support the people and boost the economy, but I really took absurd pleasure in the Winter Palace basically being my home. There were so few guests that the staff all began to know me personally and I them. It’s sweet and wonderful and I miss them.

I meant to stay up until midnight because the next day was my birthday. I would be turning twenty-seven years old in a matter of hours, but after another bath, I passed out. It was so wonderful to be physically exhausted. I’m not quite sure I can properly explain that pleasure, but reader, it is rewarding to move every day, to strain your capabilities, and to do it doing what you love. I love Egypt. I love it more with each passing moment. I must get back.

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